GULU, Uganda – Pit latrines hum with flies next to crowded mud huts. Women line up for hours to get fresh water from a well, their children playing in the puddle around it. Men sit around listlessly. A drunkard staggers by.
Conditions in the Unyama refugee camp may be bad, but those who fled here from rural homes fear what lies outside is worse. For 20 years, the Lord's Resistance Army has led a brutal rebellion, killing and maiming civilians and kidnapping children in northern Uganda. Some 2 million people have taken refuge in camps patrolled by the Ugandan army.
Now, there is a glimmer of hope. Rebel leader Joseph Kony met with south Sudanese Vice President Riek Macher last month, and said he was willing to talk peace.
The offer drew a mixed reaction in Gulu, once the epicenter of the conflict. While the government has said it is prepared to negotiate, it has not sent delegates to Juba, the city in southern Sudan where a rebel delegation is waiting. Sudan and Uganda share a common border.
Many are skeptical the political will exists to make the talks succeed.
"We want the government to reach out to the rebels. They have killed us, they have mutilated us, they have burned our villages, they have abducted our children. But they are our people and we do believe that there is no better way to create conditions for a reconciled society than to create some kind of dialogue," said Norbert Mao, a local government official.
"But I think the government would rather see Kony dead. Here is a man that has eluded them for years and he is definitely a thorn in the side of" President Yoweri Museveni, Mao said.
Kony has no known political agenda other than toppling Museveni's government and replacing it with one based on the Bible. His fighters are the remnants of a northern rebellion that began after Museveni, a southerner, took power in 1986.
The atrocities committed by the Lord's Resistance Army are not just an issue for Uganda — the conflict has spilled into southern Sudan and Congo. Last year, the International Criminal Court indicted Kony and his top four commanders for crimes against humanity and issued warrants for their arrest. The court has pressed Sudan and Uganda to arrest Kony; it was not clear if he would take part in talks in Juba.
Uganda's Defense Ministry spokesman, Maj. Felix Kulayigye, told The Associated Press that Uganda was willing to negotiate a peace deal, but would not talk to those indicted by the international court.
Sam Kolo, a former rebel spokesman and commander, spent years in the bush as one of Kony's right-hand men. He was involved in failed peace talks with a government-appointed mediator and later surrendered to the government side and was granted amnesty.
"Kony coming to these peace talks seriously is a dream," Kolo told the AP. "He is an opportunist who wants to strike gold. Peacemaking is business now, donors will listen to you if you say you are prepared to talk peace."
At their meeting, south Sudanese Vice President Macher handed Kony $20,000 and told him to buy food, not guns. Macher told the AP he gave Kony money and food to ensure the rebels would leave Sudan without plundering more villages.
"The money being spent on these peace talks is being wasted and should instead be spent on the camps here," Kolo said.
The Ugandan army claims to have defeated the rebels, pointing to the group's apparent retreat into Congo and Sudan. But the civilian population in the north — 90 percent of whom live in camps — remains unconvinced.
"The rebels were attacking my village almost daily," said Unyama resident James Ocitti. "They killed my daughter and my young son with axes as they were trying to run away. They took all our crops and then burned our house. I had to come to Unyama to save my life and to save my other children."
Camp life is bleak, the 44-year-old Ocitti acknowledges.
"There is no work to do, no money to earn. We are powerless."
Many Unyama residents see renewed peace talks as their only hope of returning home, growing their own food and giving their children a future.
"The war is not working, we are tired of the war," said Florence Adong, who has lived in Unyama for 10 years. Her two young children were taken by the rebels in 1994.
"The government should go to these peace talks, they owe it to us to try," she said. "Kony should be offered amnesty and then our children can come home. I pray that talking to Kony will bring peace this time."